Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity: Brilliant filmmaking, hollow emotional core

Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron's first film in 7 years, is essentially a horror film masquerading as science fiction.  That shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since it's not hard to imagine somebody saying the same thing about his previous film, Children of Men, but Cuaron amps things up in his latest.  Straight from the opening shot (which lasts about 10-15 minutes before making any cuts), Gravity really taps into the essence of space.  There's that endless -- literally limitless -- sea of black, made all the more infinite in IMAX 3D, awakening anxieties within you that you didn't even know existed before.  It may not seem like the kind of film that's full of scares, but there are a few scenes that are as terrifying as anything you'll see in a conventional horror movie.

But the film is really about the terror and beauty that exists all at once.  Gravity is absolutely gorgeous.  In the multi-year lead-up to the release of the film, there has been an ever-shifting news cycle relating to its technical aspects.  For a while, reports were saying that it would be shot in one continuous take, and even though that is not the case with the finished product, the long takes that Cuaron has become known for are numerous and in their full glory.  The camera takes on a weightlessness, freely drifting around Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they navigate the Hubble Telescope on a mission to service its system.  Even the characters themselves can't help but remark upon the sheer visual splendor on display, constantly commenting on how beautiful the endless expanse of space is.  Throughout the entire 90 minute runtime, there's this oscillation between awe-stricken reflection and the pure terror that follows, when the random dangers of space rear their ugly head.  It's a delicate balance, one that the film walks confidently, continuously holding the audience in its orbit.

For all its technical brilliance, however, it's hard to be as enthusiastic about the script.  You had better hope that you never pick your jaw up off the floor from the spectacle, because if you do, you'll have time to take in the often clumsy dialogue that propels the film forward.  Clooney and Bullock sell the material to their best abilities, but many of the words they speak to each other feel like the product of a first draft -- rough, stilted, and entirely too expository.  Films as tight and tense as this live and die on the depth of the characters in peril, but the two leads here are so thin that it's hard to be invested in them.  What's worse is the film demands that you are, despite the fact that the entire drive for the emotional journey is based on one measly line of dialogue.

Nevertheless, Gravity is still a pleasurable film experience, one that's especially necessary to view on the biggest screen possible.  It's got some hiccups for sure, big enough that the universal praise its getting is a bit perplexing, but small enough that there's nothing wrong with feeling positively about it.  Maybe next time Cuaron can make a film that's wholly satisfying on a technical level and an emotional one, like he did with Children of Men.

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